Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle struck out on her soda pop tax. It proved so horribly unpopular that the County Board, over her objections, repealed it this week.
All the same, it is still Preckwinkle’s job, though she’s feeling the sting of defeat, to take the lead in fixing the problem — a $200 million budget hole — created by the repeal of the tax.
Sure, she’s already done her part, as required by law, by presenting the board with a balanced budget. She has every right now, strictly speaking, to dump it on the board to find an alternative source of revenue or make major budget cuts.
But, with respect, that looks like pouting. Historically speaking, Preckwinkle has been a better leader than that. In her first year as president, she powered through a whopping 17 percent cut in county spending, undeterred by the fact that other elected county officials are not obligated to do her bidding.
She took the lead then and got the job done. She should take the lead again now.
In a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board, Preckwinkle confirmed that she won’t offer an alternate budget. Instead, she said, it’s up to the county’s 17 commissioners now to identify spending cuts or other sources of revenue. But in all likelihood, the final solution will involve more budget cuts than new taxes. Tax fatigue has set in hard.
For almost a decade now, every time local residents have looked up, a new tax has barrelled down on them. Property taxes are up. Chicago’s water and sewer taxes have been raised. Garbage fees are up. Cook County has raised the sales tax. The state has raised the income tax. Taxes on phone bills are up. City shoppers even face a new bag tax.
A big part of Cook County’s budget problems can be blamed on Springfield politicians. They’ve started skimming $15 million a year from the county’s sales tax revenues. The state’s Medicaid reductions will drain $114 million over 12 months from the county’s coffers. The state’s reduced grants for child care support spills $6.6 million in red ink onto the county’s balance sheet.
On top of that, the state lately has failed to pay all the money it owes Cook County, and the county doesn’t get the interest on late payments that private-sector companies do. At the end of August, the state owed the county $213 million.
Much of the blame for the recent flurry of new and higher taxes now goes, as well, to previous city and county elected officials — a former mayor and a couple of former County Board presidents — who ran government finances into the ground. To a large extent, Preckwinkle and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are answering for the bad decisions of their predecessors.
No matter. The challenge is to avoid repeating those mistakes. The only way forward is to continue to cut expenses wherever possible, pay bills and meet pension obligations in full and on time, and quit living on borrowed time.
That’s the challenge for Preckwinkle and the board, which must finalize a county budget by the end of next month.
That soda pop tax really was a bad idea. We noticed on Thursday that you could buy a 12-pack of Orange Crush for $4.88 at Walmart. But the soda tax, at a penny on an ounce, would jack up the price by a whopping 39 percent.
The County Board and other county elected officials can do better than that, with Preckwinkle leading the way.
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